Introduction: Ancient and Medieval History by Francis Betten, S.J.

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Ancient History

The following is an excerpt (pages 1-5) from Ancient and Medieval History (1946) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use Search to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.

INTRODUCTION

Historical Sources. — The student learns of the many events and facts which make up the history of mankind from the historical books written and published in our own time. But how do the authors of these books know what happened centuries ago? They consult what we call the sources of history. There are three kinds of such sources:

  • Oral Traditions. — The stories of happenings of the past, if handed down for a considerable time by word of mouth only, are called oral traditions. These stories tell of the deeds of prominent men, both good and bad, or of the beginnings and vicissitudes of nations, and frequently they relate to matters of religion. Many, perhaps the greatest part of them, have undergone changes in the course of time and have become more or less fabulous. But historians often discover even in these a certain amount of truth, though it may be obscured by legendary fictions.
  • Relics. — By relics we understand the weapons, tools, household utensils, articles of ornament, etc., which were used by men of former ages; also their works of art, the ruins of their buildings, the very remains of their dead buried in simple graves or elaborate mausoleums; finally the pictorial representations in painting and sculpture.
  • Written Records. — Inscriptions and especially manuscript or printed books, coming from persons who are both able and willing to tell the truth. It does not matter whether or not the author lived at the time the events he describes took place, provided it is known that he had reliable information.

The Bible. — The noblest of all the written records concerning the history of mankind is the Bible. God, Himself, is the author of this Book of Books; those whom we call the authors of its various parts acted, as it were, only as God’s secretaries. They wrote down what God “inspired” them to write. The knowledge of the various facts and truths they obtained partly by direct revelation from God, partly by studying natural sources, such as books and reliable traditions. (The Bible is not the oldest book in the world.) In this study, too, they were guided by the Holy Ghost, and God put the seal of His authorship upon whatever they actually embodied in their work. There can be no errors in matters of faith and morals in the Bible. It is possible that there are errors concerning secular matters, such as astronomy. In these points the writers received no revelation from God.

Codex Amiatinus of the Latin Bible
Facsimile from the Codex Amiatinus of the Latin Bible The Latin reads: Et factus est pavor in omnib(us), et conloquebantur ad invicem dicentes, “Quod est hoc verbum, quia in potestate et virtute imperat spiritibus inmundis, et exeunt.” Luke IV, 36. (Most of the ancient handwritten books have no punctuation marks.)                                           “And there came fear upon all, and they talked among themselves saying, ‘What word is this, for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they go out?’ ”                                                                                    Ancient manuscript (handwritten) copies of important books are called “codices.” They commonly have no punctuation marks. The Codex Amiatinus was originally preserved in the Italian abbey of Amiatae. It is now in a library of Florence, Italy. It was written in England about 700 a.d., though some think that it is older.

Copyists, too, may have made mistakes in transcribing these things. Such errors are naturally very rare, if there are any at all. The Bible is recognized to be a most reliable source of secular history. The Bible treats chiefly of the development, successes, and failures of the chosen people of God, the Hebrews. But it is full of references to other nations and their rulers.

Evolution, often spoken of in our days, is the theory which teaches that, under the influence of heat or cold or electricity or other natural forces, things can undergo various changes in the course of time; that, for instance, because of their surroundings, plants or animals have actually become different from what they were before, without, however, ceasing to be either plants or animals. We need not deny that such “evolution” has taken place in many cases. But those who maintain that lifeless matter can change into plants or plants into animals have no proof for their assertion. Much less can man, body and soul, have “evolved” from beasts. Holy Scripture tells us how the first men were created by Almighty God. It is wrong, too, to suppose that the first men were savages with rude, undeveloped minds, and that their descendants gradually rose to what man now is in the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

Civilization. — We live in a civilized country. We have good houses, build beautiful churches and schools and splendid cities, and a good government preserves order in the land. A farming class tills the soil and thereby provides food for the whole population. Other peoples live a different life. Their dwellings are the rudest kind of huts or tents, or even caverns in the ground. Such peoples we say are not civilized at all, or at any rate, they are on the lowest level of civilization.

We speak of material civilization, by which we mean the control and employment of nature, its treasures and its forces, as the fruits of the earth, the metals, wind, fire, water, electricity. Intellectual civilization stands higher; it shows itself in the pursuit of learning and all kinds of art. There is also a social civilization; it consists in good government, in a certain refinement of manners, and above all in the integrity of family life, which is the natural foundation of society. But higher than all these is religious and moral civilization. Individual man as well as the whole race must pay due respect to the Creator, and observe the laws which God has given. A nation which is wanting in this lacks the most necessary element in true civilization. These sundry elements, however, are not separated from one another by hard and fast lines. Many features of a nation’s life may be classed under several of them.

The term savagery is often used to denote the lowest degree of civilization, while by barbarism is meant a somewhat higher degree. Care is required in using them. They are frequently meant to denote not only rude material conditions, but also intellectual inferiority, and even a low standing of morality. Yet a primitive people may display a keen intellect and possess great purity of morals and correct religious ideas.

DIVISION OF THE HISTORY OF MANKIND

  1. Ancient history tells us first of the most remote times of mankind before and after the Deluge; then of the so-called Oriental nations; and finally of the Greeks and the Romans. Among the Oriental nations are those peoples whose history we can trace back the furthest into the past, namely, the Egyptians and Babylonians. They lived in the Orient, that is, east of Europe. (See T.F., “Orient and Occident.”) They were the first civilized men of whom we have any clear and definite knowledge. Many of their achievements are still benefiting the human race. Some other nations who lived in the same part of the world must also be mentioned. Chief among them is the small race of the Hebrews, which preserved for mankind the knowledge of the One True God. Otherwise the Greeks and the Romans occupy the widest space in ancient history. To them we are indebted for a very great part of the civilization we possess.
  2. Medieval history begins with the coming into power of Christianity, the religion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. After being persecuted for three centuries, this Catholic religion gained public recognition, and began to exert its supernatural power in the life of the world. New nations, too, appeared on the scene. A time vastly different from the former ages took its beginning. It lasted about a thousand years, from the fifth century until about 1500 D. Its name, medieval (medius, middle; aevum, period — Middle Ages), comes from the fact that it is in the middle between the ancient and modern time.
  3. Modern history, in the strict sense of the word, begins about 1500 D. It will be treated in another work.